Hit the Slopes

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Digital mapping: Is it journalism?

Today in class we discussed online mapping as a journalism tool, with a specific look at SeeClickFix.com. The site allows users to report a problem in their community such as a pothole in a road or graffiti on a nearby building. The site then sends a report to the relevant government authority, and problems are fixed (however long some take). Boston.com has integrated See Click Fix on its web site, providing a venue to voice concerns about faulty infrastructure in Greater Boston.

I think incorporating See Click Fix into local papers’ web sites is a step in the right direction to drive up traffic to a newspaper’s web site. What better way to engage your readers than to give them a soapbox to complain about issues other locals will relate to? The fact that many of the complaints are addressed and resolved only makes the See Click Fix incorporation even better – it holds local government and businesses accountable.

Another similar project is CrimeReports.com, a site that takes data about crime in specific communities and maps it out for users to peruse. Users can also report tips anonymously. Crime Reports works with numerous police departments in the U.S. and the U.K.

I did not find CrimeReports.com on the Globe web site. I actually stumbled across it on the Boston Police Department’s web page. It’s invaluable information for residents, and I think newspapers should be incorporating Crime Reports windows on their pages like the Globe is using See Click Fix. It could be very useful for a story about crime trends, for instance.

Online use of maps is not itself journalism, but it is a strong journalistic tool. Data visualizations are a large part of making statistics and large amounts of information understandable for the reader. This is especially true with 3-D interactive visualizations, common for major newspapers such as the New York Times.

I got to cover a lecture by the Times’ data artist in residence Jer Thorp in January, where I learned about some of Thorp’s other projects as well. One independent project he worked on is Open Paths, a site that allows cell phone owners to input data from their phones about where they have been the past year. Phone companies track and record the geographic locations of cell phones; owners can access that data and then see where they have traveled. The site has a map of where Open Paths users have been as well. Though not specifically journalism, the technology could certainly make for an interesting story if a journalist were to analyze the data provided.

I think data visualizations, especially digital mapping techniques, are very useful because they communicate information to the reader quickly and efficiently. They work very well as visuals to enhance the text of a story. The only detracting thing is that the visualizations will necessarily contain the bias of the visualization creator, making the reader absorb the bias as actual truth. This is very easy to accomplish by messing with the x and y axes on graphs, for example; surely, as data visualizations grow more complex, the ability to hide bias grows stronger as well. But I think, despite this possibility, data visualizations are an invaluable tool to the journalism field.

Tuesday Night Addendum, 10 p.m.: So instead of doing my homework like a good student, I’ve been following #backbayfire on Twitter all night. Twitter user @BostonUrbEx, a Suffolk University student, has a Google Maps compilation of information about the fire that’s quite interesting and proves that even citizen journalists can make use of digital mapping. Perhaps I spoke too soon in saying that digital mapping is not journalism itself but merely a journalistic tool.

Graphic is released for use under a GNU Free Documentation License. Some rights reserved.

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